(Philippians 2: 5-11)
This morning I want to start off with a little exercise: you know The Apostle’s Creed, correct? Oldest creed in the church; stating in an economy of words what we believe about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Since today is Christ the King Sunday, I want to focus on the part about Jesus. So we’re going to recite the creed together from memory; and at some point I’m going to say “stop.” And when I say “stop,” I want you to stop right then and think about the words you just finished saying.
Ready? Here we go:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
STOP. “He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” You ever wonder what all of that means? If I told you that “sitting at the right hand” was an ancient expression for being in a position of power and influence, would that make more sense? And if I told you that “quick” was an Old English term for the word “living,” would that clear things up a bit?
Jesus sits in a position of power and influence, from where he will judge both the living and the dead. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?
It’s the language of exultation – which is not all that different from language that British read just a minute ago:
Therefore, God also highly exalted Jesus
And gave him the name that is above every name
So that at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue should confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord.
This is language that the apostle Paul lifts up for those Christians living in Philippi in the letter he is writing to them. It is not language that Paul wrote himself; they were familiar words borrowed from an ancient hymn of the early church, recited or sung worship – much the same way we use The Apostle’s Creed on the first Sunday of every month here at Trinity.
What more appropriate words could be lifted up on this Christ The King Sunday, this final Sunday of our liturgical year. It is, as I’ve said before, our liturgical New Year’s Eve. One might wonder why we observe this odd day in the life of the church. It is not a high, holy day like some of the others; it didn’t even appear on the scene until the mid 1920’s. It was the brainchild of Pope Pius XI, created out of a concern for the growing secularism and rise of fascism in Europe; and because of all that, the need to reinforce the rule of Jesus in all things everywhere.
Which is the same sort of thing Paul is seeking to do in his letter, encouraging his sisters and brothers in the Philippian church to keep the faith and stay the course as they live out the calling of Jesus, as they serve the One who was Lord before, was Lord then, and would continue being Lord.
And what is apparent in this letter is the depth of Paul’s relationship with the people of this church. It was a strong tie between the two – Paul had worked with them before; they in turn had supported his missionary efforts. He knew these people and they knew him. And it is out of that strong relationship that Paul feels more than comfortable proclaiming the certainty of Christ as King.
What may not be as apparent, though, are the circumstances surrounding Paul when he wrote it. Paul is actually in prison when he pens this letter – either in Ephesus or Caesarea or Rome; we’re not sure which one. Think about that – it is behind bars, uncertain of his future or whether he would even have a future, where Paul makes this bold proclamation of faith to a beloved faith community.
And prison isn’t the only uncertainty Paul is facing. In this letter he makes mention of Epaphroditus, a colleague and dear friend who had fallen gravely ill. And it’s not just Paul who is struggling – the church itself is going through tough times. Paul addresses a host of issues, addresses each one directly, as Paul is prone to do: unscrupulous preachers, unnamed opponents, arrogance and an apparent falling-out between two leading women in the congregation. Sounds like church!
The truth of the matter is that Paul and the Philippian church are beset by a host of disturbances from both without and within. Very little is certain in their uncertain world.
Let me ask you something: how exactly does one proclaim Christ as King in the midst of all that? Where is the reign of Jesus when uncertainty rules the day?
I wonder if that is why Paul quotes an earlier part of that ancient hymn:
Jesus, not regarding equality with God as something to be grasped,
Instead emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…
Emptied, it says. Emptied.
The Greek word here, kenosis, it also means divesting one’s self, evacuating one’s self. It’s an interesting concept, if for no other reason we’re not told exactly what Jesus was emptying himself of. His divinity? His messiah-ness? His very soul? Whatever it is, the point is that kenosis is that moment when Jesus relinquished part of who he was in order to be what he might become.
Now this idea of Christ “emptying” himself is critical to our Christian theology – the thinking being that, by relinquishing the core essence of who Christ was, he could become fully Jesus – that is, one who relates completely with every single one of us, so that when Christ reigns as king, he reigns over and for all of us. This “emptying” is essential to understanding who Jesus is and why it matters to us.
But if these Philippians and even Paul himself show us anything, it is that it is not just Jesus who is faced with this “emptying.”
I read a blog post this past week where the author talks about the death of her husband. She calls her life after his death “the hollowing.” She says, “The hollowing began the moment Gary died. It came as a physical sensation: in the center of my chest, an emptying nearly tangible, a hollowing out of the heart and of the life I had known.” She then goes on to say that a friend who also lost her spouse recounted having the same experience, and how they agreed that nothing ever fixes the emptiness. But she also said that “ the emptiness can become a space that, in one of the mysteries of grief, leaves us more and more open to the receiving of joy.”
I love that. It’s not often that we think of absence as something that can bring joy. And yet, the hollowing happens. As much as life can fill us up, it can also empty us out. And Paul reminds us that we claim as our king one who chose to empty himself: who completely gave himself up in a way that, paradoxically, did not diminish him but helped reveal the fullness of who he is.
And the beauty of this, and the wonder of it all, is that it not only says something about Jesus – King and Lord of all – but about you and me as well. Through Jesus, we are free to choose how we respond to the hollowing in our own lives. In the emptying that inevitably occurs in the course of life, the emptying that Christ asks us to embrace as he has, we discover the ability to open our hearts to the world we are called to serve in joy and in love. For wherever there is an absence, there is always the possibility of filling it with something good.
Nearly ten years ago, you may recall, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the country of Haiti, it’s epicenter some sixteen miles from Port-au-Prince. As disastrous as this size earthquake would be in any country, it was especially devastating for Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world with nearly 80% of its population living in extreme poverty. Around 3 million people were impacted, with death tolls ranging between 100,000 to 160,000 people. The country’s physical infrastructure, already in bad shape to begin with, was in most cases totally decimated.
In the days following the earthquake, NPR’s All Things Considered sent a team to the earthquake-ravaged island to record an “audio postcard” – meaning that they basically walked around with a microphone, capturing the sounds of the people and the place in that moment. No interviews, no questions, just the sounds. In a minute I’m going to invite you to listen to that 3-minute broadcast. And what I want you to listen for are the myriad of sounds – some of which may surprise you – and in particular one sound at the very end. Listen:
Do you know what you just did? You just sang a personal hymn with a Haitian woman from nearly ten years ago. But more than that – you sang with her into the hollowing. The hollowing of a country devastated; the hollowing of a human heart which had lost so much. That woman had lost everything – and into that unfathomable void she sang a song of praise for Christ her King. And you lent your voice to her song, you joined with her in solidarity as together you proclaimed Christ as King of the Emptying. And you did this because people like Paul and so many others remind us how “the emptiness can become a space that leaves us more and more open to the receiving of joy.”
That is who Jesus is for us, having been emptied out: that we know he reigns as king even in our hollowed-out lives. And so it is on us to follow in Paul’s footsteps and proclaim this Christ, this hollowed-out-and-then-exalted Christ, to the world; a world in desperate need of meeting a Jesus who speaks to them right where they are. A Jesus who:
…reigns in cellblocks of convicted criminals, calling for repentance and offering forgiveness. A Jesus who, as refugee and asylum seeker himself, reigns for those who have no home, promising that God prepares a place for them. A Jesus who rules in government offices and on the streets with protestors, urging all to see in one another the image of God. And a Jesus who is Lord in those places of great abundance and those places of soul crushing scarcity, calling all to work to make sure everyone has enough. 
Don’t you see? For all the kings this world has ever had, for all those pretending to be kings, the reason our Jesus reigns above every last one of them is because and only because he emptied himself first. It is Jesus that reigns in us when we seek his kingdom above all others. So you and I get to worship on this Sunday and every day Christ as King. King of the Emptying. King of us all!
And for that, in the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Jill Duffield, “Looking Into The Lectionary,” Presbyterian Outlook weekly email, 11.18.2019